Could voters dampen Fircrest’s dry status?

Staff writerMay 25, 2014 

At the bar in the Pint Defiance taproom in Fircrest, a small group of friends kicked off the long Memorial Day weekend by sipping from a selection of 10 beers on tap.

Less than a mile away on Regents Boulevard, the city’s main drag, selling alcohol by the glass is against the law.

Fircrest, a Tacoma suburb of about 6,500 people, is Washington’s only “dry” city — but an anomaly in state law allows part of it to be “wet.”

Now some City Council members want to talk about bringing consistency to Fircrest businesses by repealing an alcohol ban ratified by voters nearly 40 years ago. That discussion begins publicly on Tuesday.

“There are a lot of new folks who have moved into the city and are surprised we have this restriction,” Councilman Hunter George said. “It feels outdated, according to folks who talk to me about it.”

But the council’s longest-serving member, Mayor David Viafore, cautions that the issue won’t be solved with the public vote that some are calling for. He said it would require city leaders to go through the deliberative process of changing city code.

“This is more than just a vote on liquor,” he said. “It’s the stability of our community. If this fails, it could bring down our community, and it could bring down businesses.”

Fircrest’s alcohol ban dates to the city’s founding in 1925, during the Prohibition era, when blue laws were still on the books of most Washington cities.

While state voters repealed blue laws in 1966, Fircrest kept its version of prohibition. It allows packaged alcohol sales, and adults are free to drink within city limits. But Fircrest remains the only city in Washington to enforce a ban on alcohol sales by the glass, according to the state Liquor Control Board.

Voters overwhelmingly affirmed their support for it in 1975.

A public vote is needed to repeal the ban. But if people again vote to keep it in place, it would extend to every business in Fircrest, including those on the outskirts of the city currently allowed to serve alcohol under an annexation agreement with the city.

“If something were to change, obviously this place wouldn’t exist,” said Barry Watson, co-owner of Pint Defiance. “Our business counts on holding an all-premises liquor license.”

Pint Defiance and at least six other establishments, including the Fircrest Golf Club, can serve alcohol because they’re located in a roughly 200-acre area that joined the city in the mid-1990s.

City leaders went to great lengths at the time to make sure businesses that were selling alcohol by the glass in unincorporated Pierce County could continue to do so when annexed into Fircrest.

The city worked with state legislators to change state law to allow for the exception that would turn Fircrest into a wet-dry mix.

Residents were informally polled at the time about lifting the ban, but it was determined people were happy with the status quo.

Fircrest’s prohibition of alcohol mystified former state Sen. Shirley Winsley, a Fircrest resident who requested the 1991 attorney general’s opinion that said annexed businesses could sell by the glass.

“You can go to Sumner or Orting or Milton or even little old Roy and find at least a little tavern that sells alcohol,” Winsley said at the time. “For some reason, this is an issue where our citizens like being the exception.’’

Some on the City Council are now ready to poll the community again, especially in light of the legalization of recreational marijuana use in Washington — a sign of what they see as more liberal standards in the state.

Councilman Matthew Jolibois cited the success of Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue and Proctor business districts, saying Fircrest could offer something similar on a smaller scale.

“I would love to hear from people who want to keep the blue law in,” Jolibois said. “Is it fear? Is it religious belief? Is it just, ‘The neighborhood is fine, we don’t need that kind of stuff?’”

But Viafore says if voters repeal the ban, businesses still won’t be able to sell alcohol by the glass because the city’s municipal code also prohibits it.

“I’m advocating for the council to change our (city) code first, before a vote,” he said. “Because if our citizens truly want to move forward with liquor, then that update would be no trouble, and a vote would be a slam dunk.”

Viafore owns Viafore’s Italian Delicatessen, located on Regents. He could profit from less restrictive alcohol rules but said he “did not intend to personally prosper off the backs of the residential neighbors in the community that abut the commercial properties.”

George agrees with Viafore that it would be irresponsible for the city to push for the change if it ends up hurting annexed businesses. That’s why he has proposed the city put a ballot measure to voters that would be non-binding. The results would tell city leaders where people stand on the issue.

“If it’s overwhelmingly positive, then we could feel comfortable coming back with a binding vote,” George said. “If it doesn’t appear it would pass, then we don’t continue with the discussion.”

Randy O’Brien, a former member of the city’s planning commission, supports the alcohol ban. He said he’s not driven by religious beliefs and isn’t against alcohol consumption; he’s just worried a bar or similar establishment would be the wrong fit for the largely residential city.

“Alcohol-based establishments generally bring some problems to the neighborhood,” O’Brien said. “I think anyone that is against it … (it’s) for the reason that these areas are surrounded by homes. Taverns just don’t really seem to fit that well.”

The debate surfaces roughly every decade. The last time it came up was in the early 2000s when Spring Lake Cafe owner Scott Clement presented a petition with more than 600 signatures to the City Council.

He wanted the ban repealed. No action was taken.

The Spring Lake Cafe is located in a block-long stretch of commercial storefronts on Regents. Clement said if the ban is lifted, he could double his sales by opening for dinner and serving alcohol.

“If you have a group of four to six people who go out to dinner,” he said, “one of them is going to want to have a drink.”

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467

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